English football never really warmed to Unai Emery. When he arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2018, he faced an incredibly difficult task; it wasn’t just about replacing Arsene Wenger, the man who had the club dancing to his beat for 22 years, but managing expectations of what as always going to be a thorough rebuild. The Gunners had previously won league titles regularly, but by the time the Spaniard came in, Champions League football seemed like the most realistic target. Things were always going to take time.
In fairness to his critics, Emery’s track record didn’t scream successful transition. Tactically, he has always been among the best in Europe, but he thrived in cup competitions and was regularly known for struggling in the league at Sevilla in particular, where he won three successive Europa League titles. The merciless trolling of his accent, not just from his most ardent doubters in the Arsenal fanbase, but also from sections of the media, was a sign that he wouldn’t be fully accepted or understood here, so after leaving in December 2019, having guided the club to the Europa League final in his first season, which they ultimately lost to Chelsea, his next job was right back in his comfort zone at Villarreal.
Emery’s career has often followed the same path of underachievement in the league and success in the cups. He has become a master of managing one off games, and has recovered his reputation at Villarreal, first through another Europa League triumph last season, beating Manchester United in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, and then this year’s Champions League run. It is Liverpool next up, meaning Emery’s revival has been front and centre for English audiences, not to mention Newcastle’s failed attempts to lure him to St James’ Park to replace Steve Bruce back in November.
Domestically, there have still been issues; it is unlikely Villarreal will be in next season’s Champions League if they get knocked out. Although they have won their last two in La Liga at the time of writing, they recently lost three away games in succession and sit in seventh, nine points outside the top four with five games remaining. It is very much the Emery way.
Although the Reds are possibly one of the best equipped team to deal with the defensive strength and intensity of Villarreal’s play – Jurgen Klopp’s side are seldom caught out by different styles and remain ruthless regardless of the opposition — they should most certainly be wary. A theme of Emery’s last two teams in Spain particularly is the way he has incorporated former Premier League players with a point to prove into his teams, whether it be Stephane M’Bia and Steven NZonzi or currently Etienne Capoue and, in particular, Arnaut Danjuma.
The Dutchman, alongside striker Gerard Moreno, is the team’s talismanic figure. Life in the Premier League with Bournemouth was far from straightforward, but he showed flashes before getting to grips with English football in the Championship. Villarreal pounced to sign him once their promotion bid failed and he has continued his growth in Spain; his pace, trickery and direct running give the side a different dimension and he proved to be crucial in their European run this season; if they are to go any further, having already done it the hard way by beating Juventus and Bayern Munich, they’ll need him firing. Some of the biggest clubs around are reportedly keeping an eye on the 24-year-old, too, so there is an incentive for him to maintain his own form beyond club loyalties if he needs one.
Liverpool will be overwhelming favourites in the tie and that is understandable given their form, focus, quality and history. But Villarreal may be the worst possible opponent for them to face at this stage, not just because many are already viewing both legs as foregone conclusions, but because their home form has given them a good foundation in recent ties. They drew with Juve and then went away and won, before beating Bayern and striking late to go through at the Allianz Arena. Although Liverpool’s run to the last four has been characteristically unproblematic overall, their home performances have not quite been as dominant in the knockout rounds. Inter beat them and Benfica drew; Villarreal have shown they are capable of staying in games against the top sides away, and although it is far from beyond them, asking Liverpool to put in another huge away performance could compliment things.
Whether or not Villarreal go through to the Champions League final, Unai Emery is ready for the tie, back to his best and primed to show English football, once again, just how wrong they were about him.